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Broker complaints up as stocks fall
After losing more than $500,000 in the stock market, Tim Wujcik filed a complaint in December alleging that his broker traded too aggressively on his account, setting him up for the huge loss.
But it won't be until next July at the earliest--19 months later--that the Chicago man's case will go to an arbitration hearing.
Last week, Chicagoans Judy and Alan Yale learned that their former stockbroker had pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to securities fraud, identity theft and other charges that could land him in jail for up to eight years. But the firms where the broker used to work haven't offered any restitution for what the Yales say were $11 million in losses.
While Wall Street and its regulators seek to restore the confidence of U.S. investors with loud pronouncements about housecleaning and reform, many who consider themselves victims of dishonest or incompetent brokers are doing a slow burn because their cases seeking punishment and restitution are going nowhere.
In a year in which Americans lost billions while the stock market plummeted, complaints filed by investors with the National Association of Securities Dealers, a self-policing industry organization, are soaring to record levels.
While the details of who's to blame for the losses must be sorted out in each case, this much is clear: The system for resolving the complaints is so overloaded that justice is, at best, slow in coming for all parties.
The system's problems threaten even investors who haven't filed complaints. Critics say the securities dealers' association is too willing to expunge complaints from its records, preventing investors from getting a clear picture about brokers' track records even when they make the effort to do their homework.
To Judy Yale, who says she was a victim of broker Frank Gruttadauria, the process has been a nightmare.
"They should be on their hands and knees apologizing for what was done," she says of the brokerage firms where Gruttadauria worked, Lehman Brothers and SG Cowen. Both are named in her complaint.
"They go around making statements that they are taking care of people," Yale says. "But they won't even speak to us."
For its part, SG Cowen Securities Corp. contends that the Yales withdrew $19 million from their account during roughly a decade of investing with Gruttadauria after investing just $1.2 million.
The Yales "suffered no loss," Cowen lawyer Aaron R. Marcu said in an Aug. 2 letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC opened an investigation into Gruttadauria after he vanished from his Cleveland office in January, leaving behind an incriminating letter about what he had done with clients' money.
Cowen, which sold its brokerage business to Lehman in 2000, is in the process of making settlement offers with Gruttadauria's victims, but so far no deals have been reached, a firm spokesman says.
Meanwhile, Lehman Brothers has made about $20 million in payments to Gruttadauria's former clients. A spokeswoman says the firm is still wrapping up some unresolved cases.
In all, losses by Gruttadauria's clients could exceed $270 million, according to the FBI and other government investigators. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, which is investigating the cases, says she is troubled by the lack of swift resolution for investors who think they have been swindled by their stockbrokers.
"Ultimately, we hope something happens through the bully pulpit," Jones says, referring to the public attention generated by congressional hearings. But so far, she says, "It's a slow grind."
In the first half of 2002, turnaround time for arbitration cases with the securities dealers' association increased 8 percent over the same period in 2001. The increase has been part of a steady run-up in case times over the past two years, despite the addition of 15 full-time staff members and many more temporary workers at the association.
The association says it shouldn't be blamed for the backlog, especially considering that it hired extra staff.
"The timing of the cases is in the hands of the parties involved," says Linda Fienberg, president of the association's dispute-resolution division. "We're being told that because of the number of claims, lawyers are so busy that they're having trouble scheduling cases."
Overall, investor complaints filed with the association rose 10 percent in the first half of 2002, compared with the same period in 2001. And that's on top of the 24 percent increase that the association registered for all of 2001.
Since the bursting of the market bubble, the biggest surge in complaints has been for account churning--allegations that brokers repeatedly traded in an account to earn commissions. Also high on the list: allegations that brokers made inappropriate or unapproved investments.
Perhaps more unsettling for investors who simply want to check a broker's track record, the industry has yet to resolve the issue of how complaints can be viewed by the public.
"A lot of settlements get done quickly and quietly," resulting in no formal public complaint being listed in association records, says Joseph Borg, president of the National Association of Securities Administrators Association, an alliance of state regulators.
Borg's group wants much more information publicly available for investors who want to do background checks before trusting their money to brokers--an idea that the dealers' association says it is considering.
Wujcik, a 40-year-old executive recruiter, says he has been dismayed by the lack of better oversight by the dealers' group, resulting in the prospect of a long delay in resolving his case.
"It shatters my trust and confidence," he says.
Wujcik, a former executive of Divine Interventures, opened an account with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in 1999. He claims he gave his broker clear instructions to invest his money conservatively, mostly because so much of his other wealth was tied up in Divine stock options.
A lawyer for Morgan Stanley strongly disputes Wujcik's claims, calling him an aggressive trader who signed off on the investment strategy.
It will be next summer before an arbitrator begins figuring out who's right.